The Blue Bicycle:
A Gainesville-Paris Research Project

By Charles H. Meyer

People sometimes ask me how I found the blue bicycle. As with most discoveries, I wasn’t exactly looking for it. But I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t looking for something when I first noticed it.

One evening in the fall of 2004, as I was re-watching The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003), I realized that one of the film’s scenes had been shot in the same location in Paris as a scene in CQ (Roman Coppola, 2001). Intrigued, I paused The Dreamers and loaded the DVD of CQ into my laptop. Almost immediately, I noticed what appeared to be the same blue bicycle in both scenes, even though the films had been shot two years apart.

A couple of explanatory hypotheses came to mind. Perhaps someone who lived or worked at the location had been parking his or her bicycle there for years. Or maybe Bertolucci, consciously quoting CQ, had put a similar-looking bicycle in the shot as a subtle nod to Coppola. After all, both films were set in the late 1960s and used vintage cars to give the location the right period look. And yet the first explanation was simpler, more mundane and thus more plausible.

For all its ordinariness, however, the notion that this blue bicycle was nothing but the chosen mode of transport for some anonymous Parisian also struck me as fascinating. Quietly chained to a railing, this object, only momentarily visible and relegated to the left margin of the frame in both movies, now stood out in sharp relief as the sole focus of my attention. It had boldly asserted itself to me—and perhaps only me—as if to grant me a privileged, diachronic vision of reality. Forget CQ and The Dreamers. Coppola and Bertolucci had conspired to make these films for no other purpose, I reasoned unreasonably, than to make me notice the blue bicycle. However cryptically, a true story about Paris, rather than a merely imagined one, was permanently scratched into the blue bicycle, a story all the more intriguing because it was, as yet, a total mystery. To solve it, I would have to become part of its story, casting myself in the role of amateur sleuth.

Although eager for answers, I quickly nixed the idea of trying to contact either Coppola or Bertolucci, whose responses might have instantly dissolved the mystery, which I hoped to prolong for as long as possible. Instead, I got in touch with my friend Heather Mallory, who knew Paris well, having lived there previously for many years as a writer for the International Herald Tribune. Hoping that she would recognize the location, I emailed her a couple of screen shots from the two films. Amazingly, she responded with an exact address: 15 Rue Malebranche in the 5th Arrondissement, a picturesque neighborhood just east of the Luxembourg Garden.

As luck would have it, I was supposed to be in Paris a few weeks later. My girlfriend at the time, Erin, was interning at an art museum in Venice, and I had already bought a plane ticket to spend Thanksgiving with her there. By chance, my travel plans included a layover of several hours in Paris. I contemplated taking a taxi from the Charles de Gaulle Airport to 15 Rue Malebranche and back, not sure, though, if I would have enough time. But about two weeks before Thanksgiving, my relationship with Erin fell apart, so I cancelled the trip. The blue bicycle would have to wait.

The following June, I began a summer program at a college in Vermont, where I spent seven weeks immersed in the French language. A few months before I left Gainesville, I met several people who were on their way to Paris for the summer. Seizing the opportunity, I told them about the blue bicycle and asked if they would help me learn more about it.

One such acquaintance, Sonia Hatfield, at the time an Eastside High School student and currently a junior at UF, called me up one evening in July and told me, to my sheer delight and amazement, that the blue bicycle was still chained to the railing at 15 Rue Malebranche and that she and her schoolmate Hannah Knopf had photographs to prove it. Not feeling confident enough in their French-speaking abilities, however, they had not ascertained who owned the bicycle. But with their help, I was at least closer to solving its mystery. If the blue bicycle had been a piece of set decoration, it had never been removed. If it had belonged to a local, he or she must have abandoned it because its tires were flat and its front fender was badly bent.

That December, I flew to France to visit my girlfriend, Santa Fe College instructor Emory Zink, who was teaching English to high school students in a small town in Normandy. We took the train to Paris, where I insisted, to her amusement, that we visit the blue bicycle. Seeing it for the first time—at night—was uncanny, strangely reminiscent of the scene in Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) when the fashion photographer returns to the park at night and, for the first time, sees in person the corpse of the man whose murder he accidentally caught on camera earlier in the day. Staring at it in the cold moonlight, I was as incredulous as he to find that the object of my fascination had not been removed from the scene.

I returned to France in May 2006 to retrieve Emory from her teaching stint and embark with her on a three-week-long trek through Europe. During our time in Paris, we visited the blue bicycle with the intent of somehow acquiring it. Perhaps we could ship it home to Gainesville.

Our plans changed, however, when we encountered a local man whose motorcycle was parked next to the bicycle. “This is not a normal street,” he told us. “A famous actress lives here. I cannot tell you her name, of course. A renowned pianist specializing in Chopin also lives nearby.” He did not know who owned the bicycle or why it had been abandoned but made it clear to us that the locals were aware of its appearance in a few films and that they left it alone, almost out of respect. It might be a romantic exaggeration to call the blue bicycle an informal monument to some poetic Parisian sensibility, but for whatever reason, Emory and I decided then and there to cancel our plans to steal it. We decided that it belonged where it was: in Paris, in movies and, of course, in photographs.

I talk about The Blue Bicycle Project to every Paris-bound acquaintance I make. Most are receptive, but only a few, almost all Gainesville residents, have contributed to the project. By making the pilgrimage to see the blue bicycle, they have helped turn my personal experience into a collective one. University of Florida student Amy Anderson was the first, documenting the blue bicycle during the early summer of 2005. Sonia Hatfield and Hannah Knopf, with the help of Hannah’s father, Herman, took pictures of it later that summer. Emory and I have photographed the blue bicycle twice, first in December 2005 and then in June 2006, when we also made a short video of me talking about the project. In the fall of 2007, when I edited the collected footage and posted it to YouTube, a complete stranger living in Paris contacted me and offered, under the username beaba2, to photograph the bicycle. With beaba2’s help, I was thus able to verify that it had not been removed as of February 23, 2008. A few months later, a film studies student of mine, Lindsay Hames, guitarist and lead singer of internationally acclaimed rock band The Ettes, asked me to write her a recommendation for UF’s summer program in Paris. I agreed if she promised to help me with my project. She held up her end of the bargain, making a short video on May 27, 2008 of her bandmate, Jem, gesturing quizzically at the blue bicycle. Two weeks later, Karin Gunn, an Ocala art teacher and graduate of UF’s MA program in art education, took a series of photographs of the bicycle from multiple angles. She and a friend even pretended to ride it, a blue bicycle first.

You can see videos about The Blue Bicycle Project and some of my other collaborative research projects at youtube.com/user/barthesian.

 


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Publications



"Ratting Out Big Tobacco." Cinespect. December 12, 2011.

"House of Pain." Cinespect. December 10, 2011.

"Rediscovering the French New Wave." Cinespect. December 5, 2011.

"Fifteen Minutes with You." Cinespect. November 21, 2011.

"Silent Cinema Reborn." Cinespect. November 21, 2011.

"See You Next Year: SFF Journal, Entry Fourteen." Cinespect. November 15, 2011.

"Paterfamilias in a Pinch." Cinespect. November 15, 2011.

"The Work of Love: SFF Journal, Entry Thirteen." Cinespect. November 14, 2011.

"The Duplass Era: SFF Journal, Entry Twelve." Cinespect. November 12, 2011.

"End of Story." Cinespect. November 11, 2011.

"Down into Hatch: SFF Journal, Entry Eleven." Cinespect. November 9, 2011.

"Mooring as Metaphor: SFF Journal, Entry Ten." Cinespect. November 9, 2011.

"Electrate Youth: SFF Journal, Entry Nine." Cinespect. November 7, 2011.

"Spread the Word: SFF Journal, Entry Eight." Cinespect. November 6, 2011.

"Arch Madness: SFF Journal, Entry Seven." Cinespect. November 3, 2011.

"Eau Crap: SFF Journal, Entry Six." Cinespect. November 2, 2011.

"The Wrath of Ralph: SFF Journal, Entry Five." Cinespect. November 1, 2011.

"Unbearable Brightness: SFF Journal, Entry Four." Cinespect. November 1, 2011.

"Wedding Bell Blues: SFF Journal, Entry Three." Cinespect. October 31, 2011.

"The Dueling Life: SFF Journal, Entry Two." Cinespect. October 31, 2011.

"Homeward Bound: SFF Journal, Entry One." Cinespect. October 28, 2011.

"Yawning at the Margin." Cinespect. October 20, 2011.

Film reviews of "Corman's World," "Goodbye First Love," "The Artist," and "The Descendants." Cinespect. October 14, 2011.

"Forget 'The Way.'" Cinespect. October 7, 2011.

"Pop Marx." Cinespect. October 5, 2011.

Film review of "Carnage." Cinespect. September 30, 2011.

"Baking Pans for Nigel." Cinespect. September 26, 2011.

"Cabin Fever Dream." Cinespect. September 22, 2011.

"There and Back Again." Cinespect. September 9, 2011.

"The Kid's Not All Right." Cinespect. September 2, 2011.

"Tokyo, Mon Amour." Cinespect. August 26, 2011.

"Cinespect's Guide to 'William Lustig Presents.'" Cinespect. July 15, 2011.

"Q&A with Filmmaker and Anthology Film Archives Guest Curator William Lustig." Cinespect. July 12, 2011.

"Got Freedom?" Cinespect. July 7, 2011.

"Against All Odds." Cinespect. June 23, 2011.

"A Filmable Feast." Cinespect. May 19, 2011.

"Double Trouble: Cannes Journal, Entry Five." Cinespect. May 18, 2011.

"Childhood's End, Part Two: Cannes Journal, Entry Four." Cinespect. May 14, 2011.

"Childhood's End, Part One: Cannes Journal, Entry Three." Cinespect. May 13, 2011.

"Fairy Tales for Adults: Cannes Journal, Entry Two." Cinespect. May 12, 2011.

"Setting the Scene: Cannes Journal, Entry One." Cinespect. May 11, 2011.

"The Insane Natural: An Unconscious Film Trilogy." Cinespect. February 23, 2011.

"Cubicle Rebellion, or Three Ordinary Guys with Nothing to Lose: An Unconscious Film Trilogy." Cinespect. February 7, 2011.

"The Elusive but Wonderful Films of Patricia Gozzi." Cinespect. February 4, 2011.

“La bicyclette bleue: A Gainesville-Paris Research Project.” The Satellite. Vol. 7, No. 11: November 5, 2008. pp. 14-15.

“Punch-Drunk Cinéphilia: A Review of Evan McIntyre’s Paintings at Sharab Lounge.” The Fine Print. Vol. 1, No. 3: November/December 2008. p. 10.

“Urine, Feces, and Art: A Urinary/Intestinal/Historical Tract.” The Satellite. Vol. 7, No. 9: September 3, 2008. pp. 22-23.

“The Persistence of Cookie Tins: A Review of John Patterson’s Collages at Volta Coffee.” The Satellite. Vol. 7, No. 7: July 2, 2008. pp. 15 & 21.